Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Yu Chengzhong

Despite their small size, novel nanomaterials can have a huge impact on everything from vaccines to batteries, according to Professor Yu Chengzhong.

Yu Chengzhong
The University of Queensland

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AsianScientist (Sep. 4, 2020) – How small is a nanometer? It’s about one-fifty-thousandth times the thickness of a human hair, or about one-hundredth the size of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Or, if you have a second, it’s how long your fingernail would have grown in that time frame.

A nanometer is so small that when materials approach this scale, their properties can dramatically change. For example, copper is usually easily malleable, but at a nanoscale, it becomes significantly less pliable. At the University of Queensland in Australia, Professor Yu Chengzhong is hoping to seize the unique properties of nanomaterials and apply them to bigger challenges.

By synthesizing novel nanomaterials, Yu has introduced new possibilities in diverse industries. His team has developed nanotechnologies for drug and vaccine delivery, diagnostic tools for clinical use, and the next-generation aluminium ion batteries and lithium-ion batteries.

For his contributions to the field of nanomaterials, Yu was awarded the 2015 Le Fèvre Memorial Prize for research in basic chemistry by the Australian Academy of Science. Speaking to Asian Scientist Magazine, Yu describes how nanoparticles can revolutionize various sectors and shares the lessons he has learned so far in his prolific career.

  1. In light of COVID-19, there’s been a renewed focus on the development of effective diagnostics. In what ways can nanotechnology transform diagnostic testing?
  2. Nanotechnology can enhance the lateral flow assay (LFA), a paper-based platform used to detect specific substances that we see in home pregnancy tests or rapid antibody test kits. Nanotechnology-based LFA would provide a fast, contactless and sensitive point-of-care diagnosis for early self/home testing. It could help reduce the number of people coming to hospitals and provide timely information on the outbreak. Nanotechnology could also enhance the detection sensitivity of current diagnostic methods for accuracy.

  3. One surprising application of nanotechnology lies in agriculture—specifically livestock. Can you describe how your nanotechnology projects can help improve the livestock sector?
  4. My group has focused on nanotechnology for various livestock-related delivery applications, including nano-vaccine, nano-pesticide, and animal feed additive.

    We developed a nano-vaccine technology for improved animal health. In collaboration with Professor Neena Mitter at the University of Queensland, Australia, we have used silica vesicles, which are sac-like structures made of nanoscale silicon dioxide, to deliver proteins such as the bovine viral diarrhoea virus protein. We found that our silica vesicles generated a stronger immune response compared to traditional materials designed to improve the immune response of a vaccine (known as adjuvants), providing improved protection against viral infection in healthy cattle. Field trials are now ongoing in South Africa.

    I have also collaborated with Elanco and Merial—both global leaders in animal healthcare—on an innovative nano-insecticide project for controlling diseases caused by parasites that live on the skin of livestock. I am collaborating as well with Dr Peter James from the Centre for Animal Science at the University of Queensland to develop a new nano-pesticide formulation targeting sheep pest insects.

    Currently, we are working with Ridley, a leading animal feed producer, in the application of nanotechnology in synthetic-antibiotic-free animal feed and nutrition enhancer formulations.

  5. What completed research project are you most proud of? Why?
  6. We have yielded some promising results in our projects on silica nanoparticles. My research group developed silica nanoparticles to deliver drug molecules into cells. By mimicking the rough surface of a virus, the nanoparticles showed improved binding with the drugs and better entry into the cells. This strategy has been successfully applied to deliver siRNA, which can be used to regulate gene expression, as well as antibodies and therapeutic proteins.

    We have prepared silica nano-pollens that strongly binds to bacterial membranes and inhibits bacteria long-term. Recently, we discovered that compared to nanoparticles with other types of rough surfaces, our silica nano-pollens with spiky nanostructures showed better efficacy in delivering plasmid DNA, outperforming other commercially available options.

  7. Given the applied nature of your research, you’ve collaborated with many industry partners over the years. Could you share with us some tips for academic researchers to successfully collaborate with industry?
  8. People in research and industry often speak very different languages, and have very different needs and expectations. Sufficient communication and understanding has to be first established. Researchers need to identify the problems and the needs from their partners in industry, and then think about how we can contribute to solving these problems.

  9. What recent innovations in nanotechnology excite you the most?
  10. My group is working on several new nanotechnologies in nanomedicine and energy storage. We designed silica nanoparticles with an organic group that bridged two adjacent silicon atoms. In the process, we found that that the chemical composition of that group had an effect on the nanoparticles’ functionalities. This design provided a new understanding of the fundamental relationship between molecular structures and their performance as adjuvants, enabling the development of a library of new immune adjuvants for various vaccination applications and mRNA delivery applications.

    Regarding energy storage, we synthesized graphene foam with pores only a few nanometers wide and used it as a high-performance aluminum-ion battery cathode. We are now working with partners in industry to develop next-generation aluminium ion batteries with high capacity. More recently, we presented the first example of rechargeable aluminum-selenium batteries with high capacity and further improved their performance using carbon nanomaterials.

  11. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt in your career so far?
  12. There are two equally important lessons for me. First is to find the balance between curiosity-driven and application-driven research. Expectations from academia and partners in industry are very different. Accordingly, the two types of research should adopt different strategies. The other lesson is that communication is incredibly important in research, including between peers, within a research group as well as with society, supervisors and students.

    This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.


    Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Yu Chengzhong.
    Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

After working as a science journalist in China for five years, Calo left to pursue his Master’s degree in science communication at the Australian National University. He enjoys telling stories of science across different formats at Asian Scientist Magazine.

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